Hampton Court and Burntisland: King James VI & I and the Request for a New Translation of the Scriptures
An Address given at the Arts and Letters Club, Toronto
On Tuesday, 6 December 2011
By the Reverend Doctor William Craig
After that, he moved his Majesty, that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because, those which were allowed in the reigns of Henry the eight, and Edward the sixth, were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the Original.
‘He’ was John Rainolds, one of the four ministers who had been summoned by King James VI & I to appear at a conference at Hampton Court Palace in January 1604 and present the case for further Reformation in the Church of England. His motion appears to have been the spark that led James’ ordering a new translation of the Bible, which was completed and published sometime in 1611.
This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of this translation, known as the Authorized Version or the King James Version (and occasionally as the St James Version), surely the best-known and best-beloved English version of the Scriptures. But before we are finished we will have found that in one place the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the KJV was celebrated a decade ago.
In the past few years much has been written about the making of the King James Version. In 2001 came Alistair McGrath’s In the beginning, and Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters: the story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired which were both overshadowed in 2003 (unfairly, I think) by Adam Nicolson’s widely popular God’s Secretaries; the same year saw David Daniell’s massive The Bible in English: its history and influence. 2010 saw Gordon Campbell’s Bible: the story of the King James Version, 1611-2011, Derek Wilson’s The people's Bible : the remarkable history of the King James version, and The King James Bible after 400 years : literary, linguistic, and cultural influences, edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones. In 2011 came David Norton’s The King James Bible : a short history from Tyndale to today. This reference to Tyndale reminds us that the history of the English Bible did not begin in 1611, a useful corrective to the naïve error that the KJV is ‘the original’ and other translations have changed it.
With all these books, I don’t need to tell you the story of the English Bible; I do want to tell you something about the moment in 1604 when John Rainolds proposed a new translation of the Bible. And I’ll begin with a word about the Conference called by James I  at Hampton Court.
Now, as the story of the Hampton Court Conference is usually told, King James conceived the idea because of a petition he received while on his journey from Edinburgh to London (he left on April 5th and officially entered the Tower of London on May 11th). This is the famous Millenary Petition, so called because it claimed to have the support of “more than a thousand of your majesty's subjects and ministers”. It is often said that the petition bore a thousand signatures, but there is no evidence of this. James, we are told, graciously received this petition and agreed to call the representatives of the hierarchy and the puritans "to discuss the general state of the English Church in a conference to be presided over by the King" .
Since we need to get on to talking about the Bible, we cannot discuss this petition in any detail: it is enough to note that neither in any official documents nor in the contemporary printed accounts of James’ progress to London is there any mention of this particular petition or of the King’s response to it. In fact the first clear reference to a petition claiming the support of a thousand ministers comes in a responses written in the name of the University of Oxford, apparently written in the summer of 1603 and published in October. It is perfectly possible to read the history of the conference as the King’s own idea and his own usual response to matters that needed settlement.
James’ practice of kingship in Scotland shows that he was used to dealing with religious questions by means of conferences in which he himself took part. His relation with the Church of Scotland differed greatly from that of the English sovereigns and their Church. He sat and took part in meetings of the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk in a way one can hardly imagine Elizabeth I doing in the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury. On several occasions, moreover, he had held meetings with ministers and his own counsellors to settle Kirk business. As the Scottish historian A. R. MacDonald has pointed out that, "the king gathering a representative group of ministers to discuss important issues was to become a common means of trying to achieve consensus and it was an idea which he was to carry into his English reign, most notably in the Hampton Court Conference of 1604". In fact it would have been surprising if James had not thought of calling a conference when he saw that the affairs of the English Church needed his attention.
No one in England seems to have been shy about offering advice on England’s situation and how to improve it. As he wrote later, he had “daily” received "informations” of scandals in the church. From the accounts of his journey south and from the State Papers we know of at least seven petitions that were in part concerned with ecclesiastical affairs.
Nor were these his only informations: almost as soon as Elizabeth died and James was proclaimed the Archbishop Whitgift sent Thomas Nevill, dean of Canterbury, to assure the king of the loyalty of the bishops and clergy, to know what he commanded in Ecclesiastical affairs, and to commend the Church of England to his favour and protection. Whitgift and some of the Bishops, particularly Bancroft of London, are said to have feared that the King would "favour the New Discipline", and make changes in church government and liturgy. At the same time a certain "Northamptonshire gentleman who was zealous for the presbyterian party," Lewis Pickering by name, rode to Edinburgh to meet the King. Pickering came swiftly, but it is not known "how far and with what answer he moved the king in that cause". He was disappointed. The King told Neville "that he would uphold the Government of the late Queen, as she left it". This is the first report of James's intention to uphold the English Church as it had been left him, which was to be repeated several times over the next year. So James was aware of the divisions and disagreements in the English Church even before he left Scotland. But there is another bit of advice which is often overlooked, one which seems to have had more influence than any of the petitions, a treatise called Certain Considerations touching the better pacification and edification of the Church of England presented by Francis Bacon soon after the accession. There are more echoes of this tract in the records of Hampton Court than of the Millenary Petition.
But we cannot tell the story of the conference in detail. For our business today is with the decision to proceed with the revised translation of the Bible, and for that all that we note is that not one of the petitions or informations James received had a complaint about the translation of the Bible. That is not to say that everyone was happy, though.
From the reign of Elizabeth I two translations of scripture were available in England. One, based on a version prepared for the English exiles in the reign of Queen Mary, had been published at Geneva in 1560. It was the first English edition to introduce verse numeration. It also had compendious notes of a Calvinist flavour. In the reign of Elizabeth I this Geneva Bible obtained great popularity in England, although it lacked royal and ecclesiastical authorization. The other had been produced by Archbishop Parker in co-operation with other bishops; it was revision of the Great Bible of 1539. This new translation, Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568 and revised in 1572, was the one ordered to be read in Church. It contained no notes. A W Pollard points out in Records of the English Bible, “The lack of agreement between the Bible which men read in their houses and that which they heard in church must have caused annoyance to both parties.” Still, it is rather hard to find complaints on this score. Hugh Broughton, whom David Norton calls “a man to whom vituperation was second nature and vilification first,” said that the Bishops’ Bible “might well give place to the Al-koran pestered with lies” and that, “When gentlemen find such matters in their Bibles they see no hope of knowledge, and some have turned to deny God to be the author of it.” At some point in Elizabeth’s reign a bill was prepared for Parliament calling for a new translation, “but with whom it originated appears not to be known.” Still, it would seem that the translation of Scripture was on no one’s mind. Until, that is, the 16th of January 1604, when John Rainolds made his request at Hampton Court.
What I have to say about this follows the semi-official account of the conference compiled by William Barlow, Dean of Chester and later Bishop of Rochester and of Lincoln in turn. This account, The Sum and Substance of the Conference has been accused of bias and falsification of the record; those of you who have read Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries may recall his blunt statement that “Barlow was lying”. Criticism of Barlow, appeared very early, and was given new life in 1961 in an article by Mark Curtis, on which it appears that Nicolson’s views are based (though it is hard to tell, since God’s Secretaries is not annotated). We cannot take the time now for a proper vindication of William Barlow, but a few points should be made.
The first is that the complaints of bias and sharp practice all come from writers who were not present at the conference; they are based on hearsay at best. The second is that Nicolson’s argument, which is also Mark Curtis’ position, is that instead of Barlow we should accept another, anonymous account of the conference. This account, which is undated and whose origin is unknown, relates that at the beginning of the conference King James berated the bishops and demanded that they “should deliver upon the Saturday following what they thought in their consciences was needful to be reformed in the church of God.” and that the bishops pleaded that nothing be changed, a plea the king rejected. This account agrees with one other anonymous account but not with eye-witness accounts written during and just after the conference by Tobie Matthew, Bishop of Durham, and by James Montagu, dean of the Chapel Royal. These agree with Barlow that the King spoke graciously to the bishops as the conference opened. I can see no intrinsic reason for preferring an anonymous manuscript of no known provenance to the agreement of three known eye-witnesses, especially when the anonymous source is as badly written as it is, and gives the impression that it has itself been put together from a variety of sources by someone who really didn’t know what was going on. I go into this matter in far greater detail in my doctoral dissertation, and hope that those few comments are enough for the present.
With one more general comment about the conference we can get back to the Bible. I said at the outset that John Rainolds was one of four ministers whom James summoned to make the case for further Reformation. The others were Dr. Sparks; Mr. Knewstubbs, and Mr. Chadderton. The other participants in the conference were the Archbishop of Canterbury and eight other bishops: the Dean of the Chapel Royal and six deans of Cathedrals, and two theologians. On the first day, in the presence of the Privy Council, the King met with the bishops and deans and the four ministers were left sitting outside. It was at this session that most of the conference’s work was accomplished. On the second day the four ministers met the King along with the bishops of London and Winchester and the deans; few of their suggestions were accepted. On the third day the bishops and the King finished up their work and the four ministers were then summoned in to hear what had been decided and promise to conform. If, as we are usually told, this conference had been meant to be a debate between two sides, or to be anything like the sort of conference that was called for in the Puritan literature, James went about it in a very funny way. It is no wonder that within two years radical puritans were calling for another conference, since what James had given did not satisfy him.
On the second day of the conference John Rainolds made the suggestion of a new translation of the Bible. According to Barlow he gave three examples of mistranslation :
For example, first, Galatians 4. 25 the Greek word ευσοιχει, is not well translated, as now it is, Bordereth, neither expressing the force of the word, nor the Apostle’s sense, nor the situation of the place. Secondly, Psalm, 105. 28, they were not obedient; The Original being, They were not disobedient. Thirdly, Psalm, 106. verse 30. Then stood up Phineas and prayed, the Hebrew hath Executed judgement.
These are all from the Great Bible of Henry and Edward’s time; the Bishops’ Bible agrees with it in the first case, in some editions it seems to have corrected these faults in the Psalms, but not in that of 1602. Pollard, holding that Barlow is ‘highly prejudiced’ says that
We cannot, therefore, feel sure that Rainolds ignored the Bishops' Bible by referring only to the versions allowed in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, in the rather insulting way that the text represents. The renderings to which he objected are found also in the Bishops' Bible, and if Rainolds passed over this, either as a mere reprint, or as not formally 'allowed' (i. e. approved), he was needlessly provocative.
We cannot accept this, however. For here the Anonymous Account agrees completely with Barlow: there is no evidence anywhere of other examples of errors. Norton makes a better job of it.
This is not one of the topics that Rainolds had said he would raise, and, on the surface, the argument is bad because he has cited nothing later than the Great Bible … and there were of course two more recent versions. Looked at more closely, the argument is subtle: he has not attacked the Bishops’ Bible and therefore the Church establishment; but these three readings remain in the 1602 Bishops’ Bible and are corrected in the Geneva Bible … Rainolds probably hoped that his suggestion for a new translation would be dismissed and the much simpler solution followed , adoption of Geneva as the official Bible of the Church.
Though our knowledge of the Conference at Hampton Court is limited and we will never really know what Rainolds had in mind, Norton’s suggestion makes sense.
Barlow gives the impression that the proposal was given a ho-hum by the bishops and deans:
To which motion, there was, at the present, no gainsaying, the objections being trivial and old, and already, in print, often answered; only, my Lord of London well added, that if every man’s humour should be followed, there would be no end of translating.
(One might wonder what Bishop Bancroft would say of all the versions we have to choose from today.) But if the bishops took it in stride, the King’s interest was piqued:
… his Highness wished, that some especial pains should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation (professing that he could never, yet, see a Bible well translated in English; but the worst of all, his Majesty thought the Geneva to bee) …
At once he enunciated a scheme for the work. It was to be done
by the best learned in both the Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops, and the chief learned of the Church; from them to be presented to the Privy-Council; and lastly to be ratified by his Royal authority; and so this whole Church to be bound unto it, and none other:
This is perhaps the oddest moment in the whole exchange. If the account is accurate—and no other account gives us reason for serious doubt—it seems that James had already had the project of Bible translation in mind. The answer lies in Scotland.
The Scots had adopted the Geneva Bible in 1579, in an edition published in Edinburgh by Andrew Arbuthnot with a grandiose dedicatory letter from the Commissioners of the Kirk to James. That October the Scots Parliament enacted that everyone with property above a certain value were to have a Bible and psalm book in their hands, though the edition is not specified. James was then thirteen years old.
We saw that some in England wanted a new translation of the Bible, and some wanted the Geneva version made official. In Scotland, however, where the Geneva Version was officially in use, there were also calls for a revision. In May 1601 at a General Assembly meeting at Burntisland Parish Church in Fife—a meeting set for St Andrews moved because the King had been hurt in a hunting accident—some Commissioners said
that there was sundrie errours that merited to be correctit in the vulgar translation of the Bible, and of the Psalmes in metre; … in the which heads the Assemblie has concludit as followis: First, Anent the translation of the Bible: That every one of the brethren who has best knowledge in the languages, imploy their travails in sundry parts of the vulgar translation in the Byble, that needs to be mendit, and to conferre the same together at the Assemblie .
The official record says nothing more, nor does it report any comment from King James, who was present at the meeting. But John Spottiswoode tells us more in his History of the Church of Scotland:
After this a proposition was made for a new translation of the Bible, and the correcting of the Psalms in metre. His majesty did urge it earnestly, and with many reasons did persuade the undertaking of the work, showing the necessity and the profit of it, and what a glory the performing thereof should bring to this Church. Speaking of the necessity, he did mention sundry escapes in the common translation, and made it seen that he was no less conversant in the Scriptures than they whose profession it was; and when he came to speak of the Psalms, did recite whole verses of the same, showing both the faults of the metre and the discrepance from the text. It was the joy of all that were present to hear it, and bred not little admiration in the whole Assembly, who approving the motion did recommend the translation to such of the brethren as were most skilled in the languages ; and the revising of the Psalms particularly to Mr Robert Pont ; but nothing was done in the one or the other .
Now Norton quotes this much and then goes on to write of the King’s work in revising the Psalms; omitting an important sentence. As Spottiswoode said, nothing was done in Scotland about the decision of the General Assembly; no mention made of it appears in the records of the following meeting. But Spottiswoode goes on:
Yet did not the king let this his intention fall to the ground, but after his happy coming to the crown of England set the most learned divines of that Church a-work for the translation of the Bible ; which, with great pains and to the singular profit of the Church, they perfected.
From what Spottiswoode says you might believe that James and not Dr Rainolds had been the first mover in the new translation. On Spottiswoode’s side we can consider that he had most likely been present at the meeting and that his history “was written at the behest of James, who gave Spottiswoode access to the official records”  The other sources say nothing about the King’s interest in the question of translation, however.
Once again, as so often in the story of King James and his Bible, we have far too little to build on. Nonetheless, the way he pounced on Rainolds’ suggestion suggests that he had been pondering the question at least since Burntisland. Though Rainolds may have made the suggestion at Hampton Court, it was already the King’s project.
It is hardly a surprise, then, to find that while most of the world is celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV in 2011, Burntisland Parish Church in Scotland had a festival in May 2001 to mark four hundred years since the King and General Assembly ‘had agreed to begin work on a new English translation of the Bible’. I would hardly go so far as websites as to jump straight from Burntisland to the KJV and say that “the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in 1601, decided to publish the new authorized or 'King James' version of the Bible”. Still, Spottiswoode’s account of the King’s interest I the matter suggests that we should not leave Burntisland out of the story.
There I must stop; many other things I should like to say would not fit. Thank you for your welcome and your kind patience.
I apologize that it has not been possible to bring all the notes to this blog. I reproduce some that are of interest,
1. Please forgive me for not always saying James VI and I, which is the correct style, since his coming to the throne of England was a personal union of the crowns and not a united kingdom. Though James did want a real union he continued as king of Scotland and England. I plead that the conference of 1604 was concerned with the Church of England, of which James I was the supreme governor. Besides, when I see a book called James VI and I, I always think it’s a personal memoir, James the Sixth and I…
2. This fact is contained in almost every book on the period. See, for example, G. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant (London, Hamish Hamilton), p. 304; Bryan Bevan, King James VI & I of Scotland and England (London, Rubicon Press: 1996), p. 84; Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 449 and "The Jacobean Religious Settlement", p. 36; Kenneth Fincham, "Early Stuart Polity", in Seventeenth Century Oxford, History of the University of Oxford, vol. IV, ed. Nicholas Tyacke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ) pp 179-210, p. 183; Gardiner, History of England, vol. 1. p. 148; A. E. McGrath, In the Beginning, New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 150; John Strype, The Life and Acts of the most Reverend father in God, John Whitgift, DD, the third and last Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (London: for T. Horne et al., 1718), Book IV, Chapter XXXI; J. R. Tanner, English Constitutional Conflicts of the Seventeenth Century, 1603-1689 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962) pp. 26-7; D. H. Willson King James VI and I, p. 201. In "The Ecclesiastical Policy of King James I", JBS 24 (April 1985) pp. 169-207, p 171, Fincham and
more cautiously that the conference "was prompted, it seems, by the
request in the Millenary Petition for such a meeting".
3. 'Appendix: 1601, May', Acts & Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 1560-1618 (1839), pp. 1069-1098. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=59021 Date accessed: 30 May 2011.
4. The History Of The Church Of Scotland (Edinburgh, for the Bannantyne Club, 1847) iii. 98-99.
5. Maurice Lee Jr.. “Archbishop Spottiswoode as Historian,” The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 13. No 1 (Nov. 1973), p. 138